It’s no secret that of all the aspects of what I do, photo editing is my least favourite. I have images from 2005 still waiting to be edited, because I’d much rather be out in the field, researching background information, working out, eating, or even sleeping.
Lately though, I’ve had to spend more time editing in order to prepare presentations, proposals and talks.
The following image is an example…me holding a piece of sperm whale skin…not a beauty photo per se, but great for talks.
Sperm whale skin, aka odontocete dandruff
When I say “editing”, I’m not talking about prepping a file for web use. That’s a piece of cake. Move a few sliders around, pump out a jpg, and Bob’s your uncle.
I’m talking about editing in order to have files that are clean and CMYK print-ready, which is a whole ‘nother ball game, especially when blue water is involved.
Anyway, I don’t want to get sidetracked on that issue. What I’d like to do is share some quick tips for a few things I’ve figured out over the past several weeks of (somewhat) concentrated editing.
Let me preface by reiterating that I am not by any means a skilled user of Photoshop or other editing tools. I am more on the “dunce” end of the spectrum than the “grand wizard” side.
So basically, if I can do the following stuff, anyone can. (I was tempted to write: “If Wu can do it, so can you” but that would be too corny, huh? And I really don’t want to risk pissing off Martin Yan, whom I love.)
These tips are based on the assumption that you capture RAW files (solid whack upside the head if you don’t) and are using Photoshop. I use Aperture to organise my files, but I do not do any serious editing with it.
Tip 1: Open Your Files as Smart Objects
This one small discovery immediately made my life a heckuva lot better. When you first open a RAW file, the dialogue box gives you the option opening the file as a Smart Object.
Open your RAW files as Smart Objects in Photoshop
Why should you do this? Once you open the file, you can double click on the layer in your Layers panel, and the Camera RAW dialogue will re-open with the settings you used.
So say you accidentally set the Exposure setting at -1.0, when you meant -0.1. If you didn’t use Smart Objects, you’d need to close the file and re-open from the RAW file. With Smart Objects, just double click the layer, and you’re back to where you started, so you can readjust and be on your way.
More importantly, you can keep doing this, even much farther into editing, so long as you are editing on a Smart Object and maintain a chain of Smart Objects (duplicate layers as Smart Objects).
2. Tip 2: Use Nik Dfine 2.0 and Sharpener Pro 3.0
I tried many variations of using the noise reduction and RAW sharpening dialogues in Camera RAW, but heck if I could work out what to do. I have better things to do than wing sliders around ’til I’m blue in the face.
So what I’ve settled upon is to use no noise reduction or sharpening in Camera RAW (actually slide everything to zero), and instead duplicate my original Smart Object layer and immediately apply Nik Dfine 2.0 and Sharpener Pro 3.0.
Duplicate original layer, apply Nik Dfine 2.0, Sharpener Pro 3.0
It’s not necessary to duplicate the original layer. You can apply the filters to the original. I just like to keep things tidy.
I’ve found that the default settings for Dfine 2.0 and the RAW Sharpener in Sharpener Pro 3.0 usually do a great job of reducing noise and applying initial sharpening. Occasionally I have to fiddle, but not nearly as often as I’d need to do if I tried using Camera RAW for noise reduction and initial sharpening.
Here’s the kicker.
Let’s say I step away from my computer for some coffee, come back wide awake, and realise that I flubbed an initial setting in RAW conversion.
All I need to do is double click my original layer, and the Camera RAW dialogue comes up. I make my adjustments, hit go, and the changes carry through, including through the Nik filters that I’ve just applied.
See why this is oh-so-cool-and-useful? Like magic.
Open Smart Object, get back to original Camera RAW dialogue
Tip 3: Apply More Nik Filters on Smart Objects
Due to my non-love for editing, I do my best to get as close to spot-on with exposures, framing, etc. as possible in-camera. If there’s too much work involved, I’m not going to attempt the edit.
So in practicality, most of the edits I need to do can be achieved through using other Nik Filters, again on Smart Objects.
Remember that if you use any of the Nik Filters on Smart Objects, you can always double click on the filter and re-do it.
Plus…pay attention to this one…Nik Filters have a built-in way for you to achieve masking without actually needing to worry about masking.
As an example, one of my favourite filters is Pro Contrast in Nik Color Efex Pro 4.
Here is the dialogue for this filter after I’ve applied just a tiny bit of Dynamic Contrast, 4% to be exact:
Pro Contrast, Nik Color Efex Pro 4
I generally keep the tweaks to a minimum. We’re really talking about tweaking the finer points of an image, not trying to give birth to a FrankenPhoto.
The arrow in the screenshot above points to the checkbox that allows you to see where the Control Points are taking effect. It’s not my intention here to discuss the ins and outs of Nik’s Control Points (refer to Nik’s website for tutorials), but they basically make it easy to select where you want effects to be applied, and where you don’t, i.e., masking for dummies like me.
So, to get to the main point…the reason this is important for underwater photos…is that I don’t want contrast in the blue water. Excessive contrast isn’t true-to-reality, and will also totally destroy an image for CMYK print.
I cringe every time I see blue-water backgrounds blown to oblivion due to excessive contrast and/ or saturation.
Controlling the blue while accentuating the main subject is certainly possible just using Photoshop…but it’s not easy. I know people who can do it, but I can’t.
Anyway, here’s an idea of what the Control Points allow you to do, with that checkbox above clicked so I can see what I’m doing:
Nik Control Points in Color Efex Pro 4
The Pro Contrast filter is affecting the white areas, but not the black zones. You can also adjust how much of the effect goes through to selected areas by adjusting the Opacity of Control Points. Couldn’t be easier, really.
The main drawback for all this is that using Smart Objects and applying Nik Filters as Smart Filters (which is what you do when you use them on Smart Object layers) requires computational power.
I have 16GB of RAM on the machine I use for editing, and don’t have any other software open when I edit, so things go smoothly.
File sizes can get large too, so you need plenty of hard disk storage space as well.
BTW, Google bought Nik recently. One of the changes is that the entire suite of Nik Filters is available for US$149 (70% off the original price), which is a bargain for the editing power they give you. See the Nik Software website for details.
Disclosure: I received promotional access to the filters, but otherwise receive nothing from Nik or Google. I love the filters and use them constantly.
I’m on a bit of an editing roll. Here are four more sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus).
Female sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), with three more in the background
I like the photo because one of the sperm whales in the background is arched slightly to the left of the image, echoing the position of the sperm whale in the foreground.
Continuing with my efforts to make progress with photo editing…thought I’d share this image.
There are 23 sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) here.
There are 23 sperm whales in this photo!
There were more in the area, up to maybe 100 or so, but it was difficult to establish a firm count, given how spread out the whales were.
The reason this shot is from behind the whales is that they passed all around me. In other words, there were on all sides, too scattered to get into a single frame until they passed and coalesced into this formation.
Besides the fact that there are 23(!) whales in one image, the whale with the open jaw makes the shot for me. Sperm whales are the largest odontocetes (toothed whales), which the open jaw underscores nicely.
This is one of the stories I intend to share (complete with wild gesticulations and punctuated expletives) at my upcoming presentation in Nantucket.
I’ve been catching up a (very little) bit with photo editing over the past week or so.
Here are a couple of photos I took back in 2010 of a boy Diodon holocanthus porcupine pufferfish (the one with the crazed look in his eye) pursuing a harried female (the one closer to the camera, trying desperately to get away from the deranged dude Diodon).
“Come hither, my pretty,” said the wide-eyed porcupinefish
The “courtship”, as it were, lasted several hours and actually involved many other males hyped-up with hanky-panky hormones, chasing the reluctant object of their mutual desire over vast swaths of the Lembeh Strait.
When all was said and done, the male depicted here was the last man standing, or fish swimming in this instance…clearly chuffed about the prospect of claiming his prize (Note: “chuffed” is British secret code for “to be exceptionally pleased with oneself” often while sporting a smug expression broadcasting said self-satisfaction.)
On this particular occasion, I wasn’t able to stay with the pair long enough to watch them spawn, but I did succeed in doing so once before.
The fish in that case (there was a female and two males) headed out to the middle of the strait, went down to 23m for a while, then shot up and spawned at about 12m.
All-in-all, porcupinefish courtship is quite the prickly affair (groan).
Voulez-vous coucher avec moi…
This is the final part of a series of three posts about spawning aggregations of bumphead parrotfish and Lutjanus bohar red snappers in Palau.
I’m going to cover practical information about getting to the spawning aggregations with Blue Marlin, share a few wrap-up thoughts, and set out dates for my next planned trip with the bumpheads and snappers in case you’d like to join me.
Bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) preparing for group sex
Diving with the spawning events isn’t terribly difficult, but not necessarily easy either.
Spawning takes place in the early morning (departing pre-dawn is normal), which means being mentally and physically alert at a time of day that most people are not accustomed to. It also means low light, which has obvious implications for seeing in the water, and for photography as well.
Spawning of the two species I’ve discussed takes place around the moon cycles (bumpheads at new; snappers at full), and although it’s not clear exactly why the fish choose the time and places that they do, personal observation and common sense suggest that they prefer to engage in spawning when visibility is poor and currents are optimal for dispersing fertilised eggs out to sea as quickly as possible.
Both of these considerations would help to maximise success and survival of progeny. Both also make diving and photography a challenge.
Of the two species, the bumpheads are probably somewhat easier, because the current tends not to be as strong (though it can be ripping with them sometimes as well). But in both cases, there are important considerations, which I’ll discuss below.
The fog of fish sex. This is what it looks like inside a massive group of spawning Lutjanus bohar snappers.
Diving with Blue Marlin
So…if you’re interested in visiting Palau to give the spawning aggregations a try…here’s the rundown on diving with Blue Marlin.
First off, the dive shop is located the water, on the premises of the Palau Royal Resort, which is a beautiful property. The shop is Japanese-owned and managed, and as you might expect, is extremely well-organised and tidy.
If you look at their newly minted English website, you’ll see photos of the shop, boat dock, hot(!) showers, huge rinse tanks for gear, a nice gift shop, and other facilities. (For the guys – the cute, smiling Japanese girls aren’t always standing at the rinse tanks, so don’t get your hopes up.)
The team is headed by Ishiura-san (Ishi) and Tominaga-san (Tomi) with a full complement of Japanese, Palauan and Filipino staff. Click here to see the team.
Smiling faces of the Blue Marlin team
Now…assuming most of you reading this are not Japanese speakers…the people you’ll most likely work with while you’re in Palau are Clayton and Jordan, who are the two Palauan dive guides.
Remember I mentioned Clayton in my earlier posts? Well, here he is:
Clayton, aka “Rainbow Boy”
When you meet him, feel free to call him Rainbow Boy. Or if you live in Palau and read this, please call him Rainbow Boy right away. He likes it (insert smart-alec wink emoticon).
All kidding aside, Clayton and Jordan know their stuff. I spent most of my time with Clayton (poor guy), and I can say, hand to my heart, that he is awesome with the aggregations. Don’t let the laid-back Palauan demeanor fool you. Clayton has devoted a lot of time and effort to making sure he knows exactly what is going on with the fish, which was instrumental to getting my friends and me to the right place at the right time.
And of course, with over 20 years of diving experience in Palau, Clayton knows the standard dive sites like the back of his hand, so if you’re hoping to dive the well-known sites, he’s great for that.
Some key aspects of diving with Blue Marlin:
- The standard day comprises two dives, so on a normal day (not a spawning aggregation day), you’ll probably head out around 08:30-09:00 and be back in the early- to mid-afternoon. It is possible to arrange a third dive for the day, given boat availability. The boats are similar to the all the other canopied, single-hull designs used for diving in Palau; they’re well maintained and comfortable. Blue Marlin has Nitrox available if you’d like to use EANx, and there is rental gear available too.
One of Blue Marlin’s dive boats
- If you want to go for spawning dives, you’ll need to contact the shop in advance specifically to arrange those dives, subject to availability of space. There’s no showing up and jumping on the boat. Your day will start early, how early depends on the tides and light. My preference was to head out for the spawning dive, then stay out for a couple more dives, heading back in during the early afternoon. There is some flexibility in this, but keep in mind that spawning occurs only at certain times. The fish will not amend their schedule to suit your circumstances.
- Japanese discipline is pervasive. The facilities are clean, neat, efficient, and there’s a system for washing and storing your gear so you always know where it is. If you’ve ever visited or lived in Japan, you’ll know what I mean. Oh…one thing you might want to pack is a mesh bag that holds all your gear. That’ll make it really easy for you to fit right into the system for handling gear. The gift shop has really nice big mesh bags for sale if you forget yours. I bought a couple because they’re big enough to fit all my stuff.
- You will most likely not be mixed in with divers from Japan. Besides the obvious language issues, there are differences in diving culture and practice.
- Lunches are bento boxes, which you can pre-order the day before. There are a couple of dozen variations from which to choose. I love bento lunches, so this was perfect for me. Ditto for everyone who travelled with me. If for some reason you have food issues, it’s best to let them know in advance.
- Neoprene boat coats. I looovvveee these. Blue Marlin has a bunch of these coats available for everyone who dives with them to take out during the day (and return of course!). Even though you’re diving in the tropics, it’s easy to lose body heat. I get cold quickly; having one of these neoprene coats to put on after every dive makes life downright pleasant. And believe me, when the squalls hit, you will wonder how you ever got along without one of these coats.
Neoprene boat coats from Blue Marlin. Don’t leave home without them!
Considerations for trying the spawning dives with Blue Marlin:
- As I mentioned in both previous posts, being fit helps. A lot.
- Whatever happens, stick with Rainbow Boy (or whoever your guide may be). Bear in mind that there are risks involved. Not extraordinary ones, but things you need to be aware of and take into consideration. With the early hour, low light conditions, open ocean environment, steady current, rapidly changing depths, and the chaos of frenzied fish activity, you must be a very good diver. If you’ve just started diving, or aren’t confident in the water in the event you find yourself alone, in a current, in the blue, with no visual reference…then think twice, three times for that matter. Keep in mind that the action is fast; visibility low; and everyone’s attention will be on the fish, not necessarily on you. Carrying a safety sausage (and knowing how to use it) is standard procedure in Palau, but for these dives, it’s that much more important.
- Safety, safety, safety. If you want to try the spawning dives, you will need to dive for at least one full day with Blue Marlin prior to attempting the early morning dives. This is to ensure that all your gear works properly, and that your diving skills are up to par. The snapper dives can be particularly tough. You should have at least 100 logged dives; have full control over buoyancy; be able to descend very quickly when required (a necessary skill for diving in strong current); and be able to swim against the current. If your skills aren’t sufficient, you may not be able to join the morning dives.
- Check your ego at the door. Sometimes it seems that divers carrying cameras lose sight of what’s important (i.e., appreciating the experience and having fun), with too great an emphasis on trophy hunting and bragging rights in the form of pictures. If you visit Palau to give this a try, stay focused on, and appreciate, the fact that you are witnessing some of nature’s most amazing spectacles. Don’t be the person who elbows others out of the way, charges in front of other divers, or takes off on your own thinking you know better.
- Play nice. Coming out of our experience of working together, Blue Marlin has decided to take on divers who are not Japanese. This is a big step, as Japanese-owned dive operations tend not to cater to people who are not Japanese. They have a lot to offer, as you’ve seen in this series of posts. I’d really like them to succeed, and for everyone to have fun. If you encounter any issues that you need to discuss with the management of Blue Marlin, keep in mind that English is not their native tongue, and that there may be cultural differences pertaining to your issue at hand. Please don’t make them regret stepping outside their comfort zone, and don’t make me regret sharing this information with you. For what it’s worth, nine friends accompanied me on my trips with Blue Marlin, and everyone had a superb time (Thanks Ai Lin, May, Sallie, Julian, Ildi, Jenny, Dan, Kozy, Nana!).
That’s a lot of spawn from just a couple of fish!
Travel with me to Palau, Nov/ Dec 2013
Finally, to wrap up, I’m going back to Palau in November and December this year to have another go with both the bumpheads and snappers.
You can, of course, plan your own trip to see these spectacles, but if you travel with me, you’ll have the benefit and pleasure of listening to me blather non-stop, and of watching me annoy Rainbow Boy, a pursuit at which I excel.
There’s limited space, so please contact me if you’d like to join the fun.
Thanks for reading.
Lutjanus bohar snappers aggregating before spawning en masse
More fog of fish sex: bumphead parrotfish sperm and eggs clouding up the water.
A wall of two-spot red snapper (Lutjanus bohar) in Palau
All told, I spent about one-and-a-half months last year in Palau, comprising three visits to photograph the bumphead parrotfish spawning aggregation, with time between dives spent looking for additional opportunities to capture unique images.
The amazing spectacle of so many bumpheads in a frenzy of synchronized spawning whet my appetite for fish sex voyeurism, so one area I invested considerable time researching was the possibility of documenting other awesome oceanic orgies.
To succeed at just about anything, it’s vital to stay focused, so I eventually homed in on a single species from several possible candidates: Lutjanus bohar, commonly known as two-spot or twinspot red snapper.
Twinspot snapper (Lutjanus bohar) releasing cloud of sperm and eggs
They are relatively common fish in the tropics, often hanging out at corners and off reef edges, coming in to eyeball divers from time to time. If you’ve been diving for any reasonable length of time, I’m sure you’ve seen them, though probably solitary ones or just a few at a time. You may also have noticed that they have nice sharp teeth, which is a clue to how they make their living. More on that topic later.
My reasons for homing in on this species were many, but among the most important considerations was the fact that Clayton, my intrepid dive guide at Blue Marlin, had a bit of previous experience diving with these fish while they were spawning. Not a lot, but enough to be able to relate some details and pique my interest.
In a nutshell, the existence of the L. bohar aggregation in Palau has been known for some time, so I have no doubt that recreational divers have seen this phenomenon before. In fact, there are two known red snapper spawning aggregations in the archipelago, one accessible from Koror (the one I photographed), and another at Peleliu, which is south of Koror.
Given this…one thing that puzzled me as I gradually gleaned information about spawning of this species was why there weren’t many photos. Checking with search engines turned up only a handful of images; nothing particularly impressive at that, and not really showing actual spawning. It’s certainly possible such photos exist, but if they do, they’re not easy to find.
The best images I’ve seen of large aggregations of Lutjanus bohar are from the Red Sea, where they gather in June/ July each year. As far as I know, no one has documented actual snapper spawning there, though from viewing photos my friend Julian has taken from that area during trips with Alex Mustard, I’d wager that the fish congregate to spawn in large groups there as well.
Anyway, with the apparent lack of precedent, I was excited, but simultaneously concerned about the prospect of being skunked.
I mean…lots of divers over many years in a very popular dive destination + documented phenomenon = no decent photos? That’s sort of like someone telling me that 2 + 2 = 9. Something seemed fishy (sorry, couldn’t resist).
So over the course of my visits to Palau, Clayton and I discussed the fish, the habitat, the likely scenarios, the potential pitfalls, my many questions, and my never-ending list of concerns. Basically, I was nervous about committing time and air bubbles to a project that seemed like it might have a high chance of flopping. Poor guy probably dreaded our surface-interval chats!
Trooper that he is though, Clayton took the initiative to do a few trial dives while I was gallivanting around other remote corners of the planet. What he observed and learned set the groundwork for success.
Thousands of Lutjanus bohar snappers performing an impression of a Möbius strip
It’s D*mn Hard
After much deliberation, I decided to cleave to my time-tested philosophy of Act First, Think Later, so after my humpback whale season wrapped up and I cranked out my humpback whale calf count for 2012, I travelled back to Palau to give the snappers a go.
Remember how I said it’s an advantage to be in good shape for the bumphead party? Well…ditto that several times over for snappers.
As soon as I hit the water the first time, one likely reason I couldn’t find great photos of Lutjanus bohar spawning became immediately obvious. Keeping up with them is d*mn hard!
The action takes place at a dive site called Shark City, which is about 37km (23 miles) from Koror. For you diving history buffs, this site was at one point Palau’s signature site for diving with sharks, hence the name, but the discovery and subsequent popularity of Blue Corner changed that. Of course, divers still visit Shark City, but not as often as back in the day when there were fewer options.
Geographically, the actual reef formation is a point that is the westernmost part of Palau…meaning that it’s exposed to open ocean. As a consequence, the current can be quite strong, which, I’m willing to bet, is part of the reason the snappers have chosen this area for group spawning.
When fish like snappers spawn en masse, they inundate the ocean with gametes (sperm and eggs), with the objective of overwhelming other ocean residents that come in to hoover up the instant meal (just add water!).
The fertilised eggs that escape predation get sucked out to open water by the current, where the zygotes (little fishies to-be) have a chance to grow, with some percentage surviving to become snapper juniors, and a few eventually returning to reefs to take up residence (same basic storyline for the baby bumpheads BTW).
Clayton’s diligence and advance intel prepared me somewhat for the strong current, but it was still tough going. The flow of water over the reef was steady and unrelenting. And even though there were several thousand(!) fish, all of which were potential photographic subjects…my first foray turned out to be a frustrating one. I flubbed it.
Bohar vs. Boxfish. So Not a Fair Fight.
Twinspot snappers are carnivorous piscivores, a fancy way of saying that they prey on other fish.
For voracious hunters, they’re teeth aren’t actually all that big if you see them up close, but they are certainly sharp and effective…as I had a chance to see for myself.
A swarm of two-spot red snappers that devoured a boxfish
During one of my dives, I swam over to check out a bit of activity on the reef.
What initially appeared to be two or three socialising snappers transformed into a sudden whirlwind of activity. In much less than the blink of an eye, the area around a small coral formation became a chaotic tempest of fish gone mental, kicking up bits of substrate and clouding up the water.
Like sharks in a feeding frenzy, the snappers had cornered something!
One of them must have drawn blood, triggering the bout of crazed predation I was witness to. Fish parts flew in all directions, as seething snappers tore their unfortunate victim to shreds.
Everything happened so quickly that I wasn’t able to get a look at the victim while it was whole. When all was said and done, the only thing remaining was the hard carapace of a boxfish, which one of the snappers kindly deposited at my fins, as if to answer my silent question, “What was that?”
Since I didn’t see the fish while it was alive, I can’t be 100% certain what kind of boxfish it was, but judging from the bright yellow/ orange patterns, I’m guessing that it was a yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicus). Adults of this species become somewhat bluish in hue with yellow seams between the plates comprising the body. If you happen to be super clued-in on boxfish leftovers and have a better idea of what it might have been, please let me know.
I have no idea what happened to spark the gang attack, but as soon as there were no more tasty morsels left, the snappers calmed right down and rejoined thousands of their kin schooling nearby.
Within seconds, the reef and fish were back to normal, as tranquil and still as if nothing had transpired.
Boxfish leftovers, with swarm of Lujanus bohar snappers in background
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
The night after my flubbed attempt, I had a nice long chat with myself (yes, I do this more than it’s perhaps wise to admit), replaying the events of the morning time and again, trying to work out what went wrong. It went something like this:
“You idiot. There are thousands of fish. How can you not get a decent photo?”
“But the current was strong. The light was low. The visibility wasn’t so great either. And they moved a lot!”
“Again. You idiot.”
To which I had no reasonable response, other than to whinge more, which isn’t terribly gratifying when there’s no one around to listen.
Anyway, I eventually worked out several things to bear in mind for my next attempt: the fish clump together a lot more than the bumpheads (which tend to be all over the place in a perfect illustration of Brownian motion); spawning seems to run like a chain reaction up and down the mass of fish; and it seemed that, with a bit of careful observation upon initial entry, it might be possible to anticipate where the fish would go, rather than try to keep up with them. “Skate to the where the puck’s going, not where it’s been,” as Wayne Gretzy advised.
So early the next day, I went out once again with Clayton, and I hit pay dirt.
Twinspot Snapper (Lutjanus bohar) spawning rush
Getting into the right place at the right time was still a challenge, but my intrapersonal banter wasn’t for naught. With the experience from the day before, my timing was better. I was able to conserve air and energy until just the right time, then position myself so that the action came to me.
I love it when a plan comes together.
Having better luck also allowed me to observe large numbers of the fish at close range. I noticed something interesting.
Lutjanus bohar are commonly referred to as “red” snappers. Every time I’ve seen them while diving on reefs, they’ve been red, so the name made perfect sense to me.
As it turns out though, while the fish are engaged in their mating manoeuvres, they adopt a wide range of colourations and patterns, ranging from nearly white to striped with various shades of red, yellow, brown (i.e., warm tones).
The fish seem able to switch colouration rapidly, and they also seem capable of turning their white spots on and off…so that some individuals at any given time exhibit white spots on their backs while others don’t.
It’s certainly not unusual for fish to change hues and/ or patterns for mating, so while I was amazed to see the colour shifts, I wasn’t terribly surprised.
I’m not sure if anyone has documented these colour changes among bohar snappers before though, so again…if you have any insight, please let me know.
Red snappers displaying a range of spawning patterns and colours
Another thing worth mentioning is the predators that cruise in to take advantage of spawning aggregations.
In the midst of the bumphead spawning, I saw grey reef sharks and bull sharks a few times, which were presumably attracted by the commotion caused by so many frantic fish. I’m not sure if sharks are able to take any bumpheads during mass spawning, but it would certainly be an amazing spectacle to see a large bull charge in and snatch a bumphead mid-spawn.
With the two-spot red snappers, there were hundreds of midnight snappers (Macolor macularis) attacking every cloud of fish jizz possible in order to gulp down snapper sperm and eggs…sort of yicky, but I guess a fish has to do what a fish has to do.
Far from being scary, the midnight snappers just looked…dorky. They got in the way of photos, as their darkness sucks in all light (both available and artificial), producing unsightly underlit splotches. They were more of a visual annoyance than anything else.
But…there were sharks too.
Because the snappers tend to stick together more than bumpheads while spawning, their clouds of sperm and eggs tend to be thicker and more concentrated. Quite a few times, a rampaging shark appeared suddenly out of the white haze, sort of like a speeding car without headlights materializing without warning in the fog.
Again, I didn’t see any of the sharks actually grab a fish, but given the abundance, concentration and relatively small size of snappers, I’m guessing that sharks probably treat snapper spawning aggregations like the fresh fish table at a Sunday buffet.
Most of the time, encounters with sharks were too quick and unpredictable to fire off my camera, but I did manage to get a photo of one shark just as it turned:
Blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus) swimming through spawning snappers
It’s a blacktip shark. Not the species you find around reefs (Carcharhinus melanopterus), but Carcharhinus limbatus, a fish that lives in coastal waters, and that…as far as I know…I’ve never seen before.
Note the pronounced striped pattern on the shark’s flank, as well as the black tips and edges of the animal’s fins.
The raggedy trailing edge of the caudal fin is interesting too. This doesn’t seem to be mentioned in online descriptions of this species, but several people I consulted in Palau mentioned this feature, so perhaps it’s a trait that’s characteristic of the local population. Or maybe it’s just coincidence.
Either way…that’s cool, eh? (I’m practicing my Canadian-speak for an upcoming trip to the Great White North.)
One More Post
I have one more post I want to write to round out my summary of photographing spawning aggregations in Palau last year.
In reflecting upon my experiences and doing a post mortem of sorts, there are a number of themes and lessons I feel compelled to highlight, both about diving/ photography in general, and also with specific reference to the spawning aggregations. Delving into that stuff in this post would make it way too long!
I’d also like to set out an overview of planning considerations pertaining to diving with the spawning spectacles, a description of what it’s like to dive with Blue Marlin, and how to get in touch with the dive shop if you’re keen to give this a go.
Early morning group sex, two-spot snapper style
The ocean holds many secrets; every once in a while, she shares a little bit.
Group of bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum)
spawning in the early morning
I have been fortunate in this regard, having had opportunities to witness more than my fair share of amazing spectacles in the sea, such as the scene pictured above, of bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) engaged in a orgy of spawning.
Quite often, when I post photos like this, I receive emails reflecting the sentiment: “You b*stard! Some people have all the luck,” or other missives along similar lines.
Good fortune is, of course, always important, but there’s a lot more that goes into being in the right place at the right time with the right knowledge, right equipment, and right people. There’s usually a lot of preparation, work + trial-and-error involved…and not just by me. In most cases, I am dependent upon the efforts, observations and assistance of many dedicated friends.
My quest over the course of 2012 to capture photos of massive spawning aggregations involving thousands of fish is a perfect example.
Close-up view of one of Palau’s many beautiful Rock Islands
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might remember that I had the chance to get reacquainted with Palau early in 2011 (see previous post, Exploring Palau by Kayak).
The trip was a fantastic experience in itself, but that visit to the beautiful island nation also opened my eyes to the wealth of untapped opportunity there.
Allow me to explain.
Palau is by no means a secret, at least not among the diving community. World-renowned sites like Blue Corner, the Blue Holes, German Channel and many more are a fundamental part of the global diving lexicon.
This is the very reason that I chose to give Palau a pass for many years.
You see, as a full-time photographer, I strive to stay ahead of the curve. I tend to choose remote locations, difficult subjects, places that haven’t been thoroughly explored by the underwater community. With so many camera-carrying divers visiting Palau each year, all diving the same sites day-in and day-out, there were few opportunities, I reasoned, for me to capture unique images.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’ve never had a bad opinion of Palau; I’ve often recommended it as an ideal destination to friends looking for a nice holiday. The marine life is amazing, and the dive sites among the best in the world.
What caused me to re-evaluate my own interest back in 2011 though, was the multitude of unexplored territory…the vast areas in between and outside the standard dive sites that are virtually ignored by the recreational diving community.
In short, I saw potential.
My kayak adventure with Ron got me thinking: “Hmmm, I wonder what else is around?” And, as often happens when I start to ask questions, a cascade of queries and communications followed, which eventually led to my devoting a significant chunk of time last year (about 45 days) to photographing a plethora of procreating piscines.
Bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum)
amassing in deep water prior to spawning
Before I get too stirred up about titillated fish, let me back up a step.
As I mentioned above, successfully capturing amazing images often involves the help and cooperation of many parties. In this case, I worked with a dive operation in Palau called Blue Marlin.
Most of you reading this are probably not familiar with Blue Marlin. It is a Japanese dive shop, located at the Palau Royal Resort.
So you might be wondering why I chose to work with a Japanese dive shop.
The reason is simple: The team at Blue Marlin discovered and documented the bumphead parrotfish spawning aggregation.
Blue Marlin is well-established in Palau, catering almost entirely to divers from Japan. A few years ago, the team took the initiative to start looking for new dive sites to show their repeat clientele. I’m sure this was partly driven by the realities of competition with other Japanese-owned dive operations in Palau, but having spent considerable time last year with my friends at Blue Marlin, I am also certain that curiosity and an eagerness to learn and explore were among the precipitating factors.
In any event, the Blue Marlin staff noticed several years ago that they frequently came across significant numbers of bumphead parrotfish at one of the dives sites they took their customers to for early morning dives, a site they pioneered and dubbed Grassland (in reference to fields of garden eels waving in the sand like grass being brushed by wind).
For many months, members of the Blue Marlin team went out to survey activity at Grassland whenever circumstances permitted, trying to work out what, if anything was going on.
To cut to the chase, after much methodical exploration, they realised that they had stumbled upon the staging area for a spawning aggregation involving thousands of bumphead parrotfish, an event the likes of which has never been documented anywhere else in the world (at least as far as I know).
Blue Marlin dive shop in Palau
Procreating Piscines of Palau
Bumphead parrotish are big. They grow to over one metre (> four feet) in length, and can weigh up to something on the order of 45kg (about 100lbs).
To see a few on a dive is quite a sight; to see hundreds, even thousands, gathered for a mating frenzy is truly a spectacle to behold. The nearest analogy I can think of in terms of visual impact is the annual wildebeest migration that takes place on the plains of east Africa.
Just imagine, if you can, being in the midst of rampaging herds of wildebeest. That’s sort of what it’s like to be among the bumpheads when they are spawning. Sprinkle in the occasional bull shark ripping through groups of hormone-frenzied fish spewing opaque clouds of sperm and eggs…and you get the idea.
It’s jaw-dropping amazing.
Now…it’s one thing to know that the spawning aggregation takes place; it’s another thing entirely to figure out the exact location and timing in order to be able to hit it just right every time. Just heading over to the dive site and dropping in would most likely result in seeing exactly zip.
That’s where my friends at Blue Marlin proved critical to my efforts.
After many, many hours of study, they were able to work out the specifics to be able to predict with reasonable accuracy the time and place of this spawning event. They now know that the spawning takes place once a month, with the extent and duration of activity seemingly dependent upon (and varying somewhat with) the timing of tide and direction/ intensity of current.
If you’re interested in seeing this event and/ or trying to photograph it (obviously you are if you’ve read this far), here’s what you’ll need to be prepared for:
First, you’ll need to wake up early. The exact timing varies, but generally speaking, you’ll need to head out at or before sunrise. Yes, it’s painful, but the fish are on a schedule and they won’t wait for late risers.
Next, it’s best if you’re in decent shape. In the beginning, hundreds, sometimes thousands of fish will gather from all different directions. During this phase, the fish are pretty laid back, so you can chill while you observe.
Bumphead parrotfish gathering in the early morning,
before their faces turn white
At some point, however, it’ll be as if someone flips an “on” switch, and the fish will go berserk. You’ll be able to see this coming when their faces start to turn white, but you won’t be able to predict exactly when the chaos will begin.
There are often several false starts and stops, during which hundreds of fish move together at speed in one direction, over quite a wide area. Most of the time, visibility is limited.
So the pickle you’ll find yourself in is that you’ll need to swim to keep up with the fish in order to see what they’re doing, but the more fish feints there are, the more air you’ll use, and the less time you’ll have in the water once the bumpheads actually commence spawning.
Also worth noting…the preliminary action often takes place at depth, in some instances down to 30m or more. This varies depending on ambient conditions. Once the main event starts though, the fish tend to rush toward the surface, so it will be vital to monitor your depth and ascent rates at all times.
The bottom line is…the better shape you’re in, the better your chances will be of (a) keeping up with the fish, and (b) having reasonable air consumption while biding time before the main event.
Bumphead parrotfish gathering in the early morning before spawning
And finally, when the action starts, things tend to happen really, really fast. Spawning groups coalesce without obvious warning from the amorphous mass of fish milling about, then shoot toward the surface at lightning speed, releasing streams of white jizz along the way. At the apex of their amorous runs, they split and plummet back down to the main congregation below.
The bumpheads often change directions en masse, meaning that it’s relatively easy to lose sight of them in the gamete-laden water. If you get separated from the fish, it can be surprisingly difficult to relocate them, given how many there are. Fish jizz is difficult to see through, which exacerbates limited visibility due to low light and suspended particles already in the water.
The best advice I can offer is to stick close to the guide, whom I’ll introduce later. You can choose to rely on his experience and judgement (which would be the intelligent thing to do); or you can decide that you know better and go rushing off into the blue (which would be boneheaded and just about guarantee that you miss the action).
Horny bumphead parrotfish going off like an aquatic fireworks display
Oh…one thing to keep an ear out for. Yes ear, not necessarily eye.
The bumpheads have oversized foreheads for a reason. The males headbutt each other from time to time, most likely for the same reason males of other species headbutt one another (no need to explain, right guys?).
I’ve seen it once up close, with two males lining up, speeding off in opposite directions for a few metres, whipping around in a sudden, simultaneous 180, then slamming head-first into each other at full speed…resulting in a tremendous “THWHACK!” that resonated throughout the entire Pacific basin, probably beyond. Ouch.
Chances are you won’t see it happening, but if you’re in the water while the spawning is taking place (and assuming you’re paying attention), chances are good that you’ll hear it.
There’s no mistaking the sound of two hormone-hyped bumpheads barreling into each other full throttle. (Incidentally, that’s why I prefer to use the term “bumphead” over “humphead” for the colloquial name.)
When the bumphead parrotfish are ready to spawn,
their faces take on the pale colouration shown here.
My friends at Blue Marlin helped me to nail photos of mass spawning of a second species as well, Lutjanus bohar, or twin-spot red snappers.
I’m going to split that description and set of photos out into a second post.
Like the experience of witnessing the spawning bumpheads, seeing thousands upon thousands of red snappers (which, incidentally, I noticed are not always red) was a sight for which words are entirely inadequate.
Finally, I’m planning to describe Blue Marlin in greater detail in a third post, introducing some of the key people, and telling you about my experience of diving with them, so please check back in the next few days.
Early morning fish sex in deep water
I’m putting the finishing touches on a blog post, which I should have ready to go tomorrow if all goes well.
I’m pretty excited about it, because the topic…thousands of bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) spawning at the same time…is amazing, and I spent a lot of time last year getting the photos I wanted.
Here’s a preview:
Early morning fish sex in deep water
More to come soon.
I’ve been home for a few days now (after three months solid on the road), and have just managed to get started with a bit of photo editing.
A little while ago, I finished cleaning up this photo of a blue whale, which I took last month:
Pygmy blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda)
commencing its descent to forage for krill
Yes, the whale is in clear blue water, and yup, we are right next to each other, looking one another in the eye. Nice, eh?
In case you’re wondering, the characters 藍鯨 mean “blue whale” in Chinese. More specifically, they are the characters used in Taiwan. In mainland China, the characters are 蓝鲸, a slight difference.
I elected to use the Taiwanese characters because that’s where I’m originally from (to the extent that I have an “originally from” place).
Anyway, I labelled the photo with the Chinese characters in honour of my friends who were accompanying me at the time of this encounter, as they are from China and Taiwan.
Even though all of us are Chinese, we have a variety of backgrounds, so we communicated through a mix of English, Mandarin, Japanese and even some Taiwanese, a language I haven’t really used in over 25 years.
That served to keep us on our toes and ensure that everyone (eventually) understood everything, except, of course, for the guys driving the boat and taking great care of us, who seemed to laugh a lot with us (or was it at us?).
So I’m going to be at home for the next few weeks, which will be a nice change of pace. Besides catching up on work and getting back in shape for the second half of the year, at the top of my to-do list is to write about some of the amazing stuff I’ve seen and photographed in recent months.
I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had the time or energy to write as much as I’d like, so I’m going to make up for a little bit of that in the coming weeks, starting with some mind-boggling, absolutely insane(!!!) images and stories from Palau.
I don’t want to jump the gun, but if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be in midst of thousands of spawning fish, big ones at that…stay tuned.
Oh…and of course…there will be more whale photos coming too.
A few nights ago, I had the honour of giving a talk at the Cinnamon Grand hotel in Colombo to a rapt(?) audience comprising corporate leaders and avid photographers.
These poor people had to listen to me for nearly an hour
Over the course of about 50 minutes, I showed a rapid-fire series of images, covering coral reefs, fish life, and whales.
I could’ve rambled for much longer, but it was Friday evening, and my hosts, being acquainted with my propensity for rambling, asked me to control myself and limit it to less than an hour. Oh well, they have no idea what they missed (insert smiley face).
The talk was the inaugural presentation for the Explore the World series of talks organised by Cinnamon Nature Trails, and supported by Nations Trust Bank, American Express, and the Cinnamon Grand hotel in Colombo.
Afterward, I was treated to an absolutely delicious dinner at the Mango Tree, which serves excellent North Indian cuisine. With food like that, I’m hoping they’ll ask me back again!
Invitation card for my talk in Colombo
My friend Richard took this picture yesterday…of me hanging in the water watching a bunch of sperm whales cruise by:
Me with a bunch of sperm whales
It was an amazing experience. There were perhaps over a hundred whales in total, though they were split up in multiple groups covering a wide area.
This just happened a few hours ago:
Group of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), with one defecating
You know? I really seem to have a knack for getting poo-ed on by whales.